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Real Life Into Drama

I’ve been radio silent because I’ve been in deep consultation with a client in France and am just coming up for air. She has an interesting situation in that much of what she’s writing is based on real people and real events.

This can be wonderful, especially if the events start off basically working as a “story”, because you have much less to invent. To a buyer, Intellectual Property is catnip. It’s easier to sell something that happened because you can point to it and say, “Look, this blew people’s minds. You can make money here, easy!” The less they have to use their imagination to see dollar signs, the quicker those dollars will work their way into your pocket.

The trick with real life into drama is you sometimes have to wrench your story and characters away from “what really happened” and into the best possible story. You cannot be a slave to the truth. When turning real life into drama, you do not owe anyone anything unless you signed an agreement where they have any degree of creative control. Then you’re dead.

It’s tempting to think, “When this happened in real life, it was exciting! I’m going to do that!” No, you’re not. Not all the time, anyway. If your story demands it, you’ll slide it away from the true events because, while a slavish devotion to the past will delight your high school history teacher, they don’t write checks.

It can be exceedingly difficult to change “what happened in real life” in favor of a rearrangement, as it were, of the facts. The pull of “staying with the truth” is a tractor beam that at times, must be escaped. Above all, you are there to serve the story and the characters. If the real characters did something that doesn’t help your fictional version of their story, keep in mind that your job is to enhance life and turn it into art. Not repeat the past.

This can be very, very hard to do.

This is especially hard if you’re writing about your own life. Like my client in France. Unlike most writers turning real life into drama, all of whom must let fiction ride herd on the truth, the truth actually happened to her. That makes it doubly more difficult. Fortunately she hired me to keep her out of trouble. We’ll see how I do.

You have to allow your characters to do things they would do as a character in a drama, not what they did in real life. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be on the pages of your story.

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.

This real life into drama problem happened to me.

A producer wandered out of the Hollywood jungle up the path to my door with IP, a book a man had written about his days as a pro hockey player, playing in a league one notch below the NHL. He wanted to finance a movie based on his book. Excellent! I’m always interested in people of means with open checkbooks.

The book worked delightfully well as drama. Nearly every step the hero took in real life worked smoothly in the story. A fabulous arena, cast of fascinating characters, humor, a solid three act structure… All elements tough to find in a true story. In this case, it was all there. Except

The sticking point came with the climax and the overall reason for the story to be told. The “What is this story ABOUT?” conundrum. In drama, the audience wants an uptick at the end, a “happy” ending, but, because in real life the book’s writer never made it to the NHL and that part of the story couldn’t be changed, that “loss” had to be constructed to be a victory.

This works in stories all the time. It did in ROCKY. As you no doubt recall, Rocky lost the fight with Apollo Creed. But, because the story was structured so that, if he stayed on his feet until the last round bell and “went the distance,” he would feel great and so would we.

The ending doesn’t have to be happy. Just satisfying.

So, I had to figure out a way for a character who doesn’t get into the NHL to be content with what some might perceive as failure. The answer came through his father. In real life, father and son lived, ate, breathed, slept and dreamed the National Hockey League.

After pondering, I took that truth and turned it around.

In my version, the father (I recreated him as the hero’s Opponent) wanted the son to be in the NHL and drove him hard to achieve that dream. Toward the end of my version, the son discovers that he wants to stop this senseless pain. He wants to do things he wants to do, not what his father wants him to do. So he quits hockey and becomes his own person.

Worked perfectly. The hero gets the victory the audience craves and it fit the incontrovertible fact that he never made it to the big time. A stumbling block came when the guy with the money and the control refused to sell his real life father down the river for the sake of drama. I understood the sentiment, but it killed the story and the deal went away.

Real life can be excellent subject matter for stories. But if the drama asks, be ready to jump ship

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In Praise of Typewriters – II

Perhaps the single most important post in all of yourscreenplaysucks.com…

You may be getting weary of my proselytizing for typewriters as a useful writing tool. Old fashioned technology, right? You know, like the quill pen or papyrus. I don’t tout the lowly typewriter all that often. Last time was three years ago. [Search: In Praise of Typewriters. May 21, 2017] But, as yet another semester ends, it has again struck me how incredibly useful a typewriter can be.

Especially for people who have never written on anything but a computer.

The inability to get words on the page stems from a fear that the thing you’re about to write won’t be perfect. So why write it, right? With a computer, you can so easily work it and work it and work it until it’s either perfect or… until you give up, go out back, and weed the garden. With a typewriter, you Do. Not. Have. That. Option. You write it and it sucks and then you write the next sentence and it sucks and you write the next one and the next one and so on, and none are perfect, but once you get to the bottom of the page and pull it out of the machine, the page exists.

I ask my clients and students, “Do you write a sentence, erase it, and then hate yourself?” Some look at me like I’m stupid. Others… sag, moan, and glaze over. To them, I say, “You need to try writing on a typewriter.” At my film department, we have a Writing Room dedicated to a typewriter — with correcting tape removed. You can go in there and write to your heart’s content and you cannot erase a single word. Whether you like it or not, you move forward.

The idea for the Writing Room was born from the superb documentary, CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. Check it out on Criterion. It’s fantastic. Here is the relevant clip…

And the relevant quote…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process as I’m trying to be a wacko. I’m trying to be an absolute whack job when I’m typing. And it’s like, the typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘right away, sir. Right away sir. However you want it to be.'”

Again, boiled down…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process…”

John Mayer

If you can’t get to the fragile zone you need to be in to write, and stay there, it’s game over.

If you write a sentence and hate yourself, you may as well go be a banker. Just to get to the bottom of the page, you have to think you’re Thor.

One student this past semester had crippling writer’s block. The computer was her deadliest enemy. She’d write a page, highlight it, and delete it. Again and again. The rough part was that she could really write. She had the talent to earn money. I finally took her to the Writing Room and basically locked her in. On the typewriter for a couple of hours, she ended up writing five pages, the most pages she’d ever gotten done that fast in her entire life. She was flabbergasted.

The nail in her writer’s block coffin was a line I got from Ellen Sandler, “Write fast, write badly.” After I told my student that was her goal, just to fill the page and fix it later, then it was, for her: don’t spare the horses! Every assignment she turned in began with, “You asked me write fast and badly. I have written fast and badly.”

After she wrote fast and badly, she had something she could print, hold in her hand, and rewrite. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t fix it. I tell my students, “I can help you make anything better, but if the page isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do.”

If you rewrite while you’re writing, get a typewriter.

Spend $300. Change your life.

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Unity of Place

Simple to fix. Difficult to discover. Especially if you’re not looking for it!

Elsewhere on this earth, like my series of packed house lectures on storytelling at Lincoln Center, (not really, but my, doesn’t it look just dandy in print?) I’ve mentioned the “M-80 in the mailbox” drama theory. When I was a kid, an M-80 was the biggest firecracker we could get. Supposedly, a quarter of a stick of dynamite. I doubt it. But we certainly bought that legend when I was 12.

It was a ton of fun to blow an M-80 up in the middle of your driveway. But, if you stuck it inside an unsuspecting neighbor’s mailbox and then blew it up, my oh my, now you’re talking some entertainment! As well as a Federal crime. But I digress…

The tighter the confinement, the more effective the explosion. This has a lot to do with writing, especially how long your story lasts. But I digress…

The same is true about “place.” Keep your story planted in the same place and it will be wrapped tighter, more confined, and any explosions will be felt the more strongly by your characters and readers.

Does your whole story take place in Tuscaloosa except for one wild trip to Paris? If your redneck character needs a sumptuous meal, why drag her to Paris if she can just as effectively learn her lesson in Birmingham? Well, me, I’d much rather eat dinner in Paris than Birmingham, but I’m not living and struggling in a plot centered in Tuscaloosa paper mill.

I didn’t invent this. This “unity of place” wisdom comes from our buddy Aristotle. Dude knew what he was about. Rooting your story in the place the story “needs” to be often strengthens your narrative. If an event takes place far from where 95% of the story happens, take a deep, hard look at that action and see if it can be moved to the character’s backyard, or neighborhood, or, at least town.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a superb example. The whole movie takes place in a high school. For one thing, it’s a lot less expensive to shoot. More important, the story is about people in high school and it stays at the high school.

The whole time.

Often, when you move your story away from its core location, it weakens your tale. A lot like lighting an M-80, tossing it in a mailbox, and… forgetting to shut the door.

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Lots of Drafts! Learn from Burma-Shave!

Dad said “What do you know about a brushless shaving cream?” Carl said “I never heard of one.” Dad tossed him a tube of Lloyd’s Eux-E-Sis and said “Can you make a better one than this?” Carl took a look at it and said “Well, I can sure try — I used to be chief cosmetic chemist for the old Minneapolis Drug Company.” Then Carl picked up the phone and ordered the ingredients that he thought he needed, and about 3 o’clock that afternoon batch number one of Burma-Shave came off the fire. It was, frankly, terrible stuff. We had formulations on and off the market about three times. It wasn’t until we got to formula One Forty-three that we came up with a good, stable product. Actually we’d gone by it and were up close to formula Three Hundred, and then Dad discovered some of the old One Forty-three left in a jar and got a real fine shave from it. That’s how we discovered that, if you aged old One Forty-three for two or three months, you got a fine shave with it.

The Verse by the Side of the Road

Frank Rowsome, Jr.

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How Difficult is it to Write at the Level Where Your Work Will Sell?

Extraordinarily difficult.

Here’s a musical illustration that, every time I hear it, scares me to death.

“Because the Night” was written by Bruce Springsteen & Patti Smith in 1977. Reached 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Springsteen wrote a draft, but, after struggling for four months, stopped working on it. His producer, Jimmy Iovine, suggest giving the song to Patti Smith. Iovine took her Springsteen’s recording and she finished the song. It became her biggest hit.

In 1993, “Because the Night” was covered by 10,000 Maniacs, with vocals by Natalie Merchant. It reached 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Do not watch the 10,000 Maniacs video. Just listen. It’s a superb recording. She can really sing. Their version has got a lot of strength and emotion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYZv-o01Qis

The single most terrifying thing about making art is that, if your screen, novel, poetry, or song writing is only at that level of achievement, you have to keep working on it. “Really good” is not enough. “A lot of emotion” is not going to get you a check. You have to blow the reader out the back of the theater. They have to pick themselves up off the floor in awe of whatever it was your work just did to them.

What 10,000 Maniacs did was very good, but it’s a pale thing next to the massive passion and power Patti Smith brings — with fewer instruments. To get you where you want to be, your creative work has to be at the Patti Smith level.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_BcivBprM0

This creative stuff is in no way easy.

On YouTube, the 10,000 Maniacs version has 499,000 views.

The Patti Smith recording has 9.6 million.

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Know Thy Antagonist!

My son’s a writer. Go figure.

He’s made a living as a writer since he graduated from college. He’s a game designer, had five or six plays produced in New York and now, he’s got a novel coming out. The folks at Save The Cat! asked him to write a guest column.

Interestingly, he and I reached the same storytelling conclusion, separately. Know what your Antagonist wants. And, importantly, why does she want it? It’s the whole ball game. Everything good and useful flows from those two decisions.

I’ll let him tell you about it.

http://www.savethecat.com/novelwriting/know-your-villains

Please pass this post around to your writer buddies and your reader buddies. Repurposing his existing material means I just had my morning handed back to me and I’d like to help the guy sell a few books!

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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND

Anybody see MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT?

Everybody told me it was the best one.  I was excited to see it and came away disappointed.  Disappointed and confused.  I’m not a dim guy but I had no idea what was going on in the plot.  None.

Well, there was some plutonium.  And two women.

Who looked EXACTLY alike!  Same color hair.  Same unusual mouth.  I didn’t realize there were two of them until late in the movie.  Imagine my bewilderment!

Am I the only one?  I mean, I was able to follow TINKER TAILER SOLDIER SPY and that was a plot and a half.

They kept throwing twists at me until I had zero idea which people were on his side and which ones were on the bad guy’s side.  Every henchman had the same build, wardrobe and facial structure.  The plot, or my ability to keep the plates spinning, went flying out the window fairly early on.  After that it was just a ride.  A fun one with cool chases, but story?

I imagined the studio executive reading the script, thinking, “What the hell is going on here?  If I tell ’em I’m confused, they’re gonna say I’m stupid.  I’ll stay mum and pray they know what they’re doing.  But, whoa, this’s like following a single strand of spaghetti through an Olive Garden-sized bowl of pasta.”

Who was the bad guy?  He or she or they seemed to morph and change and waver, like a wisp of cigarette smoke in a barely lit room.  Hard to see or remember.

And, hey, read my book!  One bad guy’s name was LANE.  Another one was named, I swear, LARK.  I never knew which was which.  I’m old and decrepit and have two feet in the grave, but please:  LA** as two characters’ names?  Why not LANE and LAIN, to make it more entertaining?

Oh well.

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the Book works…

Got this email from a former student, working for a lit agency in Los Angeles.

“I cannot tell you how many times I wish writers would have read your book. We had one submission where the character names were Simon, Sarah, Mitch, Mikey, and Emily. Needless to say, we don’t rep that writer…”

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Top 5 Screenwriting Book of 2018! I blush.

I’m happy to report that Your Screenplay Sucks! has been chosen by EzVid Wiki as the #5 best screenwriting book on the planet.

Best Screenwriting Books

Founded in 2011, Ezvid Wiki was the world’s first video wiki. Their YouTube channel has over 300,000 subscribers, 175 million views since its founding.

Pretty cool.

Tell your friends.

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Get details right!

Why do writers submit work that’s not as perfectly perfect as they can possibly make it?

I often see the wrong word being used. Literally, the wrong word. Just because you ran your spellcheck doesn’t mean you’re done. If your sentence is about a hairy beast, don’t describe his hair as “course.”

Don’t use words you don’t actually know. You would not describe a fortress as “adamantine,” even though the word sort of means “unyielding.” Don’t use words you don’t know. Especially if not one other word in your piece is half as brainy as “adamantine.” A person can have an adamantine personality, but a fort can’t. You’re not trying to impress someone with fancy words. You’re not writing an English paper. You are trying to communicate a simple idea as effectively as possible. Or, horrors, a complicated idea. Do not attempt to impress the reader with knowledge you do not have. It will only make you look like you’re reaching.

Or dim.

Not just use of language, but events that have no set up or moments that seem important that have no pay off. Or dialogue at the end of scenes that just peters out into nothing, that should have been trimmed so the page is as tight as it possibly can be. Or characters names that change several times in the course of a script. Details that may bump with a reader.

“Everything matters.”
Jack Nicholson

Every teeny detail must be right, or they’ll think you don’t care and will move on to the next thing in their stack.

I hope you’re not sitting in your nifty little writing space thinking, “Well, that book I just read or that movie I just saw was garbage. I can do better than that!” Well, that garbage got published or got produced, so it probably wasn’t garbage when they wrote it. The odds of something, anything… a thing you wrote, getting published or produced are infinitesimal, which means “very, very, very tiny.”

Every detail must be polished to perfection or your work will die a grim death.

Imagine you’re running across a windswept battlefield clutching your draft, racing toward a producer willing to read it… and charging at your heels, an army of Lord of the Rings Orcs, each with a finished script or manuscript in hand. They think their writing is good. You think yours is good. If you’re going to win the race with that river of Orcs, you had better take the time to get your writing as perfectly perfect as possible. Otherwise, one of those ten thousand Orcs will get a check, not you.

Some of my clients understand the degree of difficulty of what they’re trying to do. Others live in La La Land (not the movie!) and nothing good will ever happen to their writing. I’m sorry to say that, but that’s the way it is.

I suggest my clients use Your Screenplay Sucks! to do three drafts, which is how many it takes to exhaust the book. That may take as long as a year, depending on what your work schedule and writing schedule will allow. The book only costs $20. Cheap, for what you can squeeze out of it. Free, if you steal it! That’s a lot less expensive than my consulting fee. Do three drafts. Use the book up. Then send your work to me for notes. I can talk about high end stuff like plot, character, tone, structure… important things… not your misuse of “adamantine.”

I recently told a client, “Take you time. Read the book. Do the stuff you agree with. Get it right. Then send it to me.” He said, “No need. I’m ready now.” False bravado will sink your lifeboat. Ignoring my my advice, he sent his “ready to go” script. After I finished my notes, his pages looked like I’d severed my carotid artery all over them. When I sent him the notes, he was terribly embarrassed. Rarely are people able to judge their own work. He was certain it was ready. T’wasn’t close.

It’s okay to be embarrassed when it’s a script consultant. It’s not okay to be embarrassed if it’s an agent ’cause that’s the last you’ll ever hear from her. Never forget, you only get one crack at someone “real.” They’re hard to find. Excruciatingly difficult to get them to read your work. You only have one chance at them.

Better make it perfect.

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